17 brilliant tips for drawing from life

Leading illustrators tell us their favourite techniques for observational drawing.


I love drawing - the problem is that I'm a shy drawer. The idea of someone noticing me drawing him/her makes me extremely uncomfortable. That's when I find blind sketching helpful. Blind sketching is a very simple technique that helps me loosen my drawing line and gives me an interesting starting point for character design. It forces me to go out of my "comfort zone" and improve my style.

The principle is very simple. The idea is to not look  (or at least, look less) at the drawing paper while sketching quickly an object that's being observed.  Very often it gives nothing, just a pile of gibberish lines. But sometimes it can catch the essence of a posture or a movement in a very unique way. The unpredictable distortion that's created as a result of the process can be a good start for designing or illustrating characters. 

Assaf Benharroch (Israel)

Right: Another example of Assaf’s blind drawing technique


Observational drawing is at the heart of any illustration or graphic image, especially if you’re using figures or characters, no matter how abstract. Just by people watching, by looking at the way that people move, how every gesture involves a change in the entire body is a valuable exercise.

Sam Brewster (UK)

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I sketch people without applying conscious style to the drawings all the time; it’s only when I want to bring these drawings into illustrations that I ‘characterise’ them, but the principal body arrangements remain the same.

Sam Brewster (UK)


Observing teaches me to discover the details and develops my visual thinking. I like to analyse, interpret, and simplify structure to my own preference – rather than drawing objects accurately. Using a sketchbook has also improved how fast my mind can process what I see.

Mayumi Haryoto (IND)


People here love to take pictures of their food and share them online almost religiously. That’s how I came up with The Ritual. I collected things that I could use as visual elements to create hawker-dining ambience such as a food cart, plastic chairs and the classic decoration in the bowls.

I often work on smooth surfaced paper using brush pen or ink and colour it digitally. But in this piece I sketched it digitally and used acrylic paint for the actual implementation.

Mayumi Haryoto (IND)

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I rarely leave home without a pen and some paper, even if it's just folded up in my pocket. I live with the fear of coming up with a great idea in my head and forgetting it. I think practicing drawing from life is vital as an illustrator. When we draw things from life, we observe them so much more than we normally would. I like to sketch from nature because it will never stop being beautiful. 

Sketch as though nobody will ever see what you are making. It gives you an amazing freedom to play and enjoy the process. You will learn so much more without worrying about who will see what you have done.

Paul X. Johnson (UK)


Consider the concept of your piece before you begin sketching. Small thumbnails in sketchbooks and lots of scribbles of text are great to get your initial ideas down. Collecting reference images, as well as taking your own photographs will give you plenty of material to work from.

Here I wanted to create a feeling, a sense of wonder and bewilderment, with a vintage, hand-made feel. By paying close attention to the formation of the landscape and tonal areas of grey within the images I had collected, I was able to create strong contrasts with drawing pencils and a putty eraser.

A final tweak of the levels in Photoshop gives the image a soft, aged feel.

Kris Jones (UK)


There’s something of a friction that runs throughout my work between the real and the imaginary, the digital and the physical. I make substantial use of the internet (in the absolute broadest sense) where ‘inspiration’ is concerned – making use of Instagram, Google Maps and of course caverns of images of skyscrapers, cities and life.

Daniel van der Noon (GE)

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Mulling over stories I’ve read, heard or dreamed about I feel are still at the very core of my work over and above images that I’ve seen and found. Making work with my bare hands, and the practice of drawing itself remain at the core of what I do. I pay a great deal of attention to both the medium and materials that I work with.

Daniel van der Noon (GE)


For me as an editorial illustrator it's important to strike the right balance between imagination and reality, because what i make needs to be instantly recognisable and unique at the same time.

I always look for reference material and closely study what I am  about to draw so i know how it looks and works but once i've done that it's important to give it my own spin, to create my own interpretation.

Jasper Reitman (NL)


The important thing is to not slavishly copy every detail of what you see because there also needs to be a certain degree of fantasy in illustration.

Jasper Reitman (NL)

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I’ve always been drawn to things that don't seem quite right: misspelt signage, unusual overheard conversations, funny juxtapositions – as well as my own mis-interpretation of things I am looking at. So quite often I think it's possible to look 'too hard' for inspiration - sometimes it's the things you weren't really looking at properly, and definitely never the things you were looking for that inspire an idea.

Holly Wales (UK)


Sketchbooks are a good way to record ideas, but if you're too busy documenting everything you may miss something. It's the age old debate about taking too many photographs on holiday: are you actually on holiday at all, or just an observer looking in?

The camera can really alter the perspective of the viewer, and the same can be said for drawing.

Holly Wales (UK)


I love colours. So any kind of material that comes in exciting, dense, varied colours I am down with. Felt tips (of course), wax sticks, oil bars, watercolour pigments, gouache, coloured paper. I'm not loyal to any particular brand. I’m more of a magpie – whatever works for the task at hand!

Artists materials can be liberating but they can also be restrictive if you get too familiar with them and stop using anything else. I'm always trying to mix and re-mix successful combinations I come across, to see if I can do things a bit differently. If you feel stuck, step out of your comfort zone and try a new approach.

Holly Wales (UK)

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Drawing from life gives you a better understanding of what stuff looks like; life drawing classes for example, are pretty cheap and easy to come by. They also help you relax: if you're drawing regularly then you're less likely to get too caught up in the impact of a particular mark or stray shape.

The best advice I've ever been given is not to be too critical of a drawing while you're making it – leave all the analysis for the end, and then use it to get started on something else. It's a good formula for making work because there's shouldn't ever really be a reason to stop.

Holly Wales (UK)